Reducing tell-tale signals…
(gio, 07 feb 2019)
Today many people train Taijiquan for enjoyment, sports performance, artistic expression etc. Nothing wrong with that in
itself, but the mindset is very different from that advocated in traditional Taijiquan where we are told to train using intention without revealing our purpose externally. An often quoted saying
from famous military strategist Sunzi’s “Art of War” advises that: “If one knows the enemy and oneself, one can fight a hundred battles without defeat”. How is this relevant to Taijiquan
practice? It’s generally said that a person trains form to know themselves and that they train push hands to know an opponent. But this isn’t quite sufficient. For sure push hands training
sensitises us to the movements of an opponent. However, it is critical to realise that this is not a one way interaction. Learning to read the movements of an opponent has to be tempered by an
awareness that one’s own movements may be read by the same opponent. Even as an exponent is feeling for the tell-tale signals giving away the
intention of another, he must learn to recognise his own anticipatory movement. This is one of the reasons why the form is practiced so slowly and
meticulously. By carefully and meticulously examining each movement one can begin the step-by-step process of rooting out any “telegraphing” of our own intention. By uncovering all the places
where movement is inefficient or lacking the necessary smooth and spiralling quality, one gradually reaches the point where it can be said that we “know ourselves.”
An early shot of Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang
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Why slow training wins the race...
(Sat, 29 Dec 2018)
What makes Taijiquan training different from that of other arts? I've been asked this question many
times and usually answer that the most obvious difference is its use of slowness and looseness as the core method to bring out necessary martial qualities like speed, strength, accuracy
To reach an advanced level we need to practice slowly, taking care to self-correct all the
time. Using slowness to achieve detail. What details are we talking about? Here's a few to be going on with:
1. Accuracy - in terms of posture and function
2. Intention and how it matches to movements
3. Maintenance of the correct energetic state (of different parts simultaneously to enhance the
Chen Yu: "Never do an approximation of a movement"
People often either over-complicate or completely misunderstand Taijiquan's training
process. In a hurried effort to access higher levels of skill, making the critical error of ignoring necessary stages such as laying down the correct physical shape. Completing this stage
naturally opens the door to the internal aspects. Simply put, if the learners hips are not level or the shoulders are lifted, if the chest sticks out or the body is leaning - there's no need to
be too concerned with dantian qi. If training is approached logically it is obvious that at this stage they'd get more bang for their training buck by correcting the visible mistakes rather
than losing themselves in some fanciful esoteric wandering.
Chen Yu, in "Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods" cautions that haste makes it more
likely for movements to be cut short and in the process important details missed out. He advises practitioners to never do an approximation of a movement: "In every movement, the spirit must be
guiding the energy, and the intention driving the power" - training in this way enables the practitioners to develop vital martial qualities including stability, accuracy, speed and ferocity. To
ensure not to make the mistake of cutting short and approximating he suggests that "every movement should take 3-5 seconds to complete so that the Jin in every action is brought
Chen Xiaowang: "Every part does what it is supposed to do without obstruction
A central goal of Taijiquan is for movements to become natural, to rid every action of any
awkwardness and not telegraphing within an action. Chen Xiaowang often repeats the phrase "natural is the first principle". In this context natural means that every part and each section of the
body do what they are meant to do without obstruction. Practitioners are often able to (correctly) repeat the requirement that one must be loose and relaxed in order to enter the door of
Taijiquan. However, relaxing is not a simple process. For a start, if the body's position is not correct, it cannot relax properly. The process of adjusting and "fixing" the posture,
undoing fixed habits and embedding new ones that conform to the system's detailed requirements can only be done in meticulously and mindfully.
Bringing out the skills of Taijiquan require the ability to move with precision and focus
towards an intended direction. In practical term every movement must be finished carefully and exactly, as the end of one movement represents the starting point of the next. During a particular
workshop Wang Xian stressed that only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly. He said with humour (I'm paraphrasing here): "if you start from the wrong
position it's 100 percent certain your movement will be incorrect... If you start from the correct position, there's a small chance you might do it correctly".
Wang Xian: "Only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly"
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(Mon, 17 Dec 2018)
San Diego at the Taoist Sanctuary
On the flight home after a couple of weeks of seminars and a short book tour on the west coast of America I had the chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. The first evening of our stop at Bill and Allison Helm's
Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego opened with a lecture on our latest book Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods (published in August). The talk was structured around four themes that recurred throughout
the book: ideas about the nature of Taijiquan; the importance of nurturing within the training process; the most effective way to train if you are to bring out the functional capacity of the art - in
particular the role of body integration; and finally some of the problems facing the art of Taijiquan as it goes into the future. Problems include: the fact that for the majority of
practitioners Taijiquan is a discipline no longer practised for its original purpose; the fact that while the number of people practising Taijiquan is at an all time high, the number reaching any
meaningful level of skill is depressingly small; and the many misconceptions about the art that still persist...
Over the course of the seminar the San Diego group trained Chen Taijiquan's jibengong
(basic training methods) and the Laojia Yilu. Any complete training approach needs to consider multiple characteristics including both internal and external aspects of training. All martial arts,
in their own way, follow processes designed to systematically develop the attributes of power, strength, speed and the ability to change. The basic training exercises and first routine provide
the template through which Taijiquan practitioners can hone these qualities. At the same time Taijiquan’s training emphasis is very different to other martial arts in the way in which
practitioners are required to put aside generally accepted methods of improving the previously mentioned elements of power, strength, speed and changeability:
On the floor...
In terms of strength - they are asked to put aside physical strength as a means of
developing looseness (song) and pliancy (rou) – “Using intention and not strength”; To increase speed, the system counter-intuitively instructs practitioners to slow down their movements, keeping
faith with Taijiquan’s maxim which states that “extreme slowness gives rise to extreme speed”; To develop the quality of changeability Taijiquan advises learners to “use inaction to control
action, meeting all changes with constancy”. With this basis the skilled exponent is psychologically strong enough to wait for opponents to over extend their position before launching an
After the San Diego seminars we spent a couple of days of down time in San Francisco’s
historic Chinatown. The oldest Chinatown in the U.S., this colourful district played a pivotal role in the history of Chinese martial arts in the country. Walking down the bustling streets of the
largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia has much the same feel as strolling through the back streets of Hong Kong. Loud murals decorate many of the side streets - terracotta warriors, the monkey
king and his companions and of course Bruce Lee, the “Little Dragon” born in the city in 1940 before moving to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. The story goes that on his return to
America, the brash young Lee alienated many of the older established Chinese masters as he attacked the “classical mess” of traditional gongfu and his assertion about its reliance on, among other
things, “ineffective” forms training.
The late Bruce Lee is never far away in San Francisco's Chinatown
Somewhat ironically, a paving slab beneath one of the murals of Bruce Lee was inlaid with a bronze
inscription of an old Chinese idiom - “When you drink water, think of its source”. In one form or another I've heard this saying repeated many times over the years. From my younger days doing Shaolin
Gongfu when we were told never to forget we were no more than links in a chain. In Chenjiagou I saw the saying presented in a slightly different form - "When you drink the water, remember the person
who dug the well". Chen Taijiquan is close to four centuries old. It didn't emerge from a vacuum but was built upon existing knowledge in areas including martial arts, traditional health practices,
elements of Chinese medical theories and ancient philosophy. Throughout Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods all the older generation teachers interviewed stressed the importance of following a
prescribed route that had been passed down by previous generations. Wang Xian, speaking of this "carefully preserved knowledge... [stated that] Taijiquan offers one of the most formally thought out,
meticulous, and clearly articulated set of principles and practices". Our job in training Chen Taijiquan is to try to understand and manifest these principles that have been handed down.
Stopping for a coffee at the Caffe Trieste I was told by a chatty regular that this was the
place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for ‘The Godfather.’ I did a little research on the place and found that "...when Papa Gianni founded the Trieste in 1956, upper Grant and
the Trieste was ground zero of the Beat Generation. The poets, the writers, the thinkers, the talkers all came here.” Since we were on a mini book tour I took that to be a good
Our next stop was Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School in Seattle. The Seattle programme began
with a "Book Club Potluck" - Great food followed by a lively Q&A session on Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods - covering the books content and the background story behind its creation. We
basically wrote the book to “scratch an itch” and tried to present it as if we were sitting around the fireside having an informal chat with the most illustrious elders of Chen
Seattle at the Embrace the Moon Taiji School
On the floor, again!
Like the seminars in San Diego, training centred around Chen Taijiquan's basic exercises and
Laojia Yilu. Taijiquan looks to hone four external and four internal aspects: externally training the hands, eyes, body method and footwork (shou, yan, shenfa, bu); internally training spirit,
intention, intrinsic energy and trained power (shen, yi, qi, jin). Taken together these represent the "gong" of the art. In practice these elements must be cultivated carefully bearing in mind the
health, strength, experience and level of understanding of the practitioner. Over the course of the US seminars practitioners varied in age from people in their twenties to seventies - from
pro-athletes to retired office workers – from veteran practitioners to newcomers whose experience could be measured in months. To be successful training has to take into account these natural
differences and be approached on an individual basis. As the saying goes “Don’t’ compare yourself to another person today, compare yourself to yourself yesterday”.
Seattle - Laojia Yilu
So what are we trying to achieve when we train Taijiquan? The most obvious place to start
is with the name of the system - "Taiji" refers to a philosophical concept that dates back to China's ancient past. "Quan" is martial arts. Together giving a total art built upon the integration
of philosophy and martial arts. Manifesting the art to its full potential depends upon working from where you are today and embracing concepts that have grown from a different culture and
Just me and my pal Bill Helm having some fun in Chinatown
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Realising Chen Taijiquan’s Six Harmonies
(Mon, 01 Oct 2018)
Taijiquan skill arises from a comprehensive study of the body as a unified whole or system. The core training methods of the system are built around
the qualities of
looseness, pliancy and slowness. Slow training provides a means by which to improve body co-ordination and to help to rid the body of any excess
tension. The process of slow training over an extended time helps practitioners to achieve a unification of body and mind described in Taijiquan literature as the harmonisation of the mind
(xin), intention (yi), intrinsic energy (qi), and body strength (li). Every facet
of a person – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – is seen to be interconnected and interdependent, and no aspect can be understood in any meaningful way except in relation to the whole.
This wholeness is realised via the nurturing of Taijiquan’s six harmonies.
Internal and External Harmony - Chen Xiaoxing by Mary Johnston
harmonies are understood in terms of three external and three internal harmonies. The external harmonies refer to the physical components of the body, which must be ordered in a way that
optimises one’s structure. The three external harmonies denote the connections between:
These can be
widened to take in the connections between the left hand and the right foot, the left elbow and the right knee and the left shoulder and the right kua
(and vice versa). The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the external harmonies simply as everything “arriving at the same time”– so every
movement is performed as an integrated whole. The correct
way to apply power arises not from isolated muscular strength, but from an optimally aligned body structure and unified movement through a relaxed physical and mental state.
internal harmonies refer to the unification of an individual’s:
(Heart) – Yi (Intention)
(Intrinsic Energy) – Li (Body Strength)
Jin (Tendons) – Gu
this context, xin refers to the emotional aspect of one’s mind, yi to its logical or intentional part. The literal translation of the Chinese character
xin is "heart". Early pictograms of the character for xin unambiguously show a picture of the physical heart. Xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions. Literature from the Warring States period
of Chinese history depicts it as the centre of an individual’s emotions and sentiments, from tranquillity and calmness, to anger, grief and disappointment.
players are often told to “use intention and not force”. Mental unity is predicated on the presence of both the emotional and logical mind. In
a real confrontation conflicting feelings or thoughts can have dire consequences. While xin or heart is necessary to summon up sufficient courage,
yi enables them to act with a clear purpose and make the right decisions in an instant. So, in a real
world example we could compare an individual exhibiting xin without yi to the hothead who fights rashly and
with uncontrolled emotion and no clear intention. Conversely, yiwithout xin, could be characterised by the
individual lacking in fighting spirit although knowing in their mind what they should do. The idea of linking heart and fighting spirit is also common in the West, where, for example, a skilful
but hesitant boxer will often be accused of lacking heart. The fusing of heart and intention allows one to bring into play an energy that is fully focused and integrated. Combining this with the powers of the body represents a joining of internal and external aspects – that is the connection of energy and strength (qi and li).
Achieving this degree of synchronisation enables the body to operate as a unified whole - in terms of Taijiquan’s harmonies, linking the tendons with the bones.
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Chen Zhenglei - Four Steps to Combat Skill...
(Mon, 13 Aug 2018)
At his recent training camp in Chenjiagou, Chen Zhenglei addressed the question of how a practitioner should approach Taijiquan if they are to develop high level fighting skills. During the course of
his lecture spoking about what people should focus on at the different stages of training? In summary he suggested that the development of Chen Taijiquan’s internal martial arts skills arise from
following four steps:
1. The first step involves an in-depth and meticulous study of the “gongfu frame” (the first routine) of Chen Family Taijiquan. Chen Taijiquan’s gongfu formula is based on the foundation of the
original boxing form that has been passed down from generation to generation.
2. From this basis studying the indoor methods within the gongfu form that enable the altering and transformation of power and the system’s attacking skill. These skills are based on the
changes and transformations that arise from the total familiarity of the gongfu form. Study each and every move for the ability to bring out the perfect round, complementary and spiral force,
and the skill to transform each and every move that can be utilised. The goal here is to achieve the highest level of power that encompasses looseness, pliancy, elasticity and “shaking power”.
3. The third step is to study the indoor method of tuishou. Based on the foundation of the alternating and complementary spiralling skill, learning the two persons tuishou methods, using the
skill that has been extracted from the meticulous study of the form. Through these methods becoming familiar with the different energies/power and attack/defence possibilities. Practicing until
one is completely accurate in listening and differentiating incoming energies and until reaching the stage where the opponent can be felled unwittingly and unconsciously.
4. Finally, studying the sanshou method of Chen Taijiquan. Now building on the foundation of the previous steps, a practitioner undertakes two persons’ sparring that is not restricted by
the prescribed form, so as to learn the full repertoire of defence and attack. Using the ba fa - peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao - together with seizing, grasping, throwing, sweeping,
practicing possibilities of actual fighting. Until reaching the stage of being able to borrow another’s force, to “divert thousand pounds with four ounces”.
As always, the advice was that there could be no shortcuts and that the above four stages must be progressed through step-by-step, layer by layer, gradually and incrementally increasing one's level
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Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods
(Thu, 02 Aug 2018) Chen Taijiquan: Masters and
Methods records the thoughts of some of the most knowledgeable Taijiquan practitioners of
recent times – Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Zhenglei, Chen Yu and Yu Gongbao:
Taken together, the
masters presented are not restricted to any one school. That said there are many connections and areas of shared experience between them. Combined, they represent a strong link in a chain
preserving a common heritage. In modern times there has been a mystification not just of Taijiquan, but traditional martial arts as a whole. These arts that
for centuries were trained in a practical and pragmatic way as a means of self-protection are treated like some kind of modern fantasy. What exactly is Chen Taijiquan? Chen Taijiquan
is a sophisticated physical system that has been shaped by a different cultural tradition. It presents us not only to new ways of performance, but also to new ways of thinking and understanding.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of explanations fall far short, showing either a lack of knowledge or a strong bias in perceptions. Concepts that don’t translate easily into English are often
disregarded from the outset.
Taijiquan is a functional combat system and like all martial arts the three essential elements of strength, speed and change must be omnipresent. Through a variety of training methods, the aim is
to enhance the body’s strength, speed and develop a more and more subtle ability to change. These results cannot be achieved without committing to a
programme of hard work way above a person’s normal capacity. However, Taijiquan is different to other martial arts: From the perspective of
strength, it tells practitioners to “practice by using intention and not use strength”, and also through looseness to completely discard
their inherent physical strength; To cultivate speed, Taijiquan
advocates using slowness, its boxing theory speaking of the way in which "extreme slowness gives
rise to extreme fastness"; To increase the skill of change Taijiquan advocates "using inaction
to control action; meeting all changes with constancy”. In essence, therefore, we can see that Taijiquan requires practitioners to put aside the accepted methods of improving and enhancing the functions of martial arts.
Over the years we’ve
kept detailed notes of our meetings with the various teachers - initially for our own interest. The passing of Feng Zhiqiang in 2012 was a stark reminder of the importance of documenting the
teaching of this elder generation. In Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods:
Feng Zhiqiang - image by Janet Grimes
Feng Zhiqiang - a senior
disciple of the legendary seventeenth generation master Chen Fake, explains how Taiji gongfu is acquired through a “combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing as its
mainstay”. He stresses the fundamental importance of
cultivating and nurturing every aspect of one’s being. The basis of Taijiquan rests upon the steady building and development of qi (intrinsic energy), of shen
(spirit), of xing (character) and of shen (body). To enter the door of authentic Taijiquan training he advocates placing a premium on developing the twin qualities of looseness and heaviness.
Feng Zhiqiang cautions awareness of the many traps lying in wait for practitioners not fully conversant with the aims and method of Taijiquan. He touches on numerous interesting topics including:
the use of specific acupoints as gateways through which a practitioner can help the relaxation process; the need for a “complete training” approach emphasising training the three aspects of
internalised skill, form push hands; and the role of physical strength in Taijiquan practice.
Chen Xiaoxing –
Principal of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School addresses the nature of Taijiquan and its integration of philosophy and martial arts. Starting from the widespread misperception of Taijiquan as an
unchallenging art for the old and infirm, he rails against the general public’s view of Taijiquan as some kind of recreational “exercise for parks and street corners”. Chen Xiaoxing touches on
the necessity of having a good working knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and its unique way of understanding the laws of nature and the interrelationship of things. He is of the opinion that
without this, while one can realise the most basic physical aspects of Taijiquan, “there’s no possibility an individual will be capable of practising good Taijiquan”.
Chen Xiaoxing - image by Mary Johnston
Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai have come to be known as the “Four Buddha’s Warriors” of Chenjiagou. In the book:
Chen Xiaowang - speaks about the best way to bring out the functionality of the form, paradoxically cautioning against learning set
applications. To reach the highest stage of Taijiquan development, an individual must react in an instinctive and spontaneous way. The physical body and mental intention have been harmonised and
absorbed to become a natural part of one’s being to the point where they are able to move and react exactly as circumstances dictate from moment to moment, rather than trying to react with a
limiting series of fixed ideas. Ultimately Taijiquan adepts work towards a time when the whole body acts as a unified and highly co-ordinated unit. Chen Xiaowang gives a comprehensive explanation
of just one aspect - the way in which the two hands are synchronised to accommodate their alternating function as either the “guiding” or “directing” hand.
Wang Xian - discusses
the most important points to consider when practising Taijiquan: including its focus on looseness, spiral movement and the necessity of using intention; the best way to bring out the system’s
functionality; the three stages of progression that all practitioners must go through and the specific drills and training methods that must be employed at each stage. Wang Xian explains that
the form is not a dead thing, but must be alive within the principles. You must be conscious that
you're training a martial art (quan) when doing form or the form will be empty (kong). This can be in terms
of understanding the potential functions of movements or in the development of martial qualities such as rootedness, footwork and awareness.
Zhu Tiancai - talks about his experience learning Taijiquan
in Chenjiagou and about training with his two main teachers Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. He outlines the main differences between the Laojia (Old Frame) and Xinjia (New Frame) routines he
learned from these two teachers respectively. Zhu asserts that despite superficial differences; in essence the two forms are the same and goes on to describe the core methods of Chen Taijiquan:
first looking at the bafa or eight types of jin, which he believes are often quoted but only understood at
the most superficial level; next describing the four different methods of training Chen Taijiquan uses to develop and bring out these types of jin. He
explains the two overarching ideas that must be present if one is to be able to react in a spontaneous way and at the same time remain within principle. In the
concluding section Zhu Tiancai speaks about the importance of nurturing one’s body and cultivating one’s character.
Chen Zhenglei - After
clarifying the difference between Taijiquan and external martial arts systems, goes on to explain several necessary ways practitioners should approach their study of Taijiquan: firstly placing an
emphasis upon understanding the principles and philosophy of the art instead of fixating on individual postures and applications; secondly, seeking the cause rather than the obvious manifestation
of movements; and finally, training the whole body to be a synchronised system rather than concentrating on individual applications. This approach is opposite to the common Western way of viewing
the world where components of a whole are separated out to allow us to study them more closely. In the process losing sight of the fact that it is the working of the whole that
Chen Yu – Beijing based son of the eighteenth generation master Chen Zhaokui addresses the confusion of many modern practitioners regarding the role of physical strength in Taijiquan. He points to the need for individuals to possess a basis of
physical strength to support the more subtle elements of skill. Going on to explain why the qualities of looseness (song) and suppleness or pliancy
(rou) are so important in the development of a fully integrated type of strength. He details the approach that must be followed if one is to integrate
the internal and external aspects of the body.
Yu Gongbao - author of the
world's first dictionary of Taijiquan and China’s first Professor of Taijiquan explores the art from the perspective of its cultural properties. He outlines the characteristics of this
distinctive martial art that uses physical movement to express the spirit of the Chinese nation, Yu explains how Taijiquan culture functions within a system that can be neither divided nor
isolated. Rather, it must be understood from numerous dimensions. In his logical study he considers some of the main elements we need to think about
including Taijiquan’s broad social influence, including the way in which practicing Taijiquan has provided a portal through which many non-Chinese have come to appreciate cultural norms and the
principles of self-cultivation.
Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods is available from Amazon.com
Chen Taijiquan cover calligraphy by Chen Xiaowang
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Martial art or bitter art?
(Sun, 29 Jul 2018)
In Philosophical Perspectives on the Martial Arts in
America, Carl B. Becker, a specialist in Asian philosophy and ethics, compared the typical approach of Western and Eastern people to training martial arts. An interesting point he made was
that Western culture usually approaches martial arts and sport in general in terms of “play and recreation”: Fun, enjoyment, self-improvement, health etc being some of the common reasons given by
individuals for taking part. Easterners (the article spoke specifically about Japanese), in contrast, would often respond with that they were training a valuable discipline. Obviously there are
some serious practitioners in the West and lightweight practitioners in the East, people are people after all.
Applying this to Taijiquan, for the most part it is portrayed as gentle, relaxing and an easy
option. Leafing through a magazine in the dentist’s reception the other day, I saw “Tai Chi” described as - “An enjoyable way to pass an hour during the hectic busyness of the real world”. Real
Taijiquan training can be a lifelong journey of personal cultivation and development. But it does not come without paying the price of sweat and discipline. Following are comments by Deng
Xiaofei, Zhong Lijuan and Wang Shili, three branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School describing their thoughts on the Taiijiquan journey:
Deng Xiaofei: “When I was young my shifu said wushu (martial art) is also kushu (bitter art). It is bitter and dry – but you need to eat this bitter every day. You have
to endure the loneliness and persevere until one day you can use what you learn".
Zhong Lijuan: "Learning Taijiquan is like preparing to build a house. You have to start with digging the hole and doing the piling before you can do anything. The piling time
often takes a lot longer than the building time. But once it is established you can build not just one storey but ten, twenty, or even a skyscraper. Therefore, all of us who have vowed to train
Taijiquan do not just want the obvious rewards or be dazzled by momentary fame but hold a good attitude and persevere with our training until real gongfu is
Wang Shili: "People who persevere until they are old are very rare. It is not even one in a hundred or one in a thousand. It is very scarce – people who persevere a
lifetime. It is not a matter of wanting to be part of a trend or a fashion, but the attitude should be:
Live until you are old
Learn until you are old
Train until you are old”
As long as life goes on, then training should go on".
Deng Xiaofei - A "martial art" is also "bitter art" that must be eaten every day
Published in August - Chen Taijiquan : Masters & Methods
A series of
interviews, training tips and insights from some of the foremost masters of Chen Taijiquan.
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Chen Taijiquan’s “Special” Training - Single Movement Drills
(Mon, 16 Jul 2018)
Single movement drills - Wang Xian training Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow). Source: Chen Family Taijiquan Tuishou
Training Laojia Yilu in Chenjiagou some years ago I was told not to “stupidly train repetitions of the form thinking
that this would be enough to make your Taijiquan work as a martial art”. The first routine or Yilu is often referred to as the Gongfu Frame, used to lay the necessary
foundation of correct physical structure and smooth energetic connection - over time helping to develop the often talked-about qualities of fluidity and agility at the top, heaviness and
rootededness at the bottom. However, despite its fundamental importance, it is important to see form training within the context of a larger system.
In Going Beyond the Norm: An Interview with Chen Stylist Wang Xian, written by Asr Cordes and
published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in 2002, Wang Xian said “soft training is not enough to reach a high level of martial skill. If you want fighting skill, you will need special
training”. What the first form lacks, for the most part, is speed, suddenness and abrupt explosive changes. People train Taijiquan for different reasons, but if we’re looking to develop combat
capabilities in an effective and functional way these aspects need to be honed to a high degree. In the traditional syllabus the Erlu (second routine) is trained to do this - hence the saying
“Yilu cultivates qi, Erlu explodes.” Another of the “special” training methods used to bring out the hard or gang side of Chen Taijiquan is practising
repetitive single movement drills.
Single movement training involves the repeated practice of a wide variety of actions and techniques focusing on different areas of the
body. It helps to refine the techniques that form the basis of Taijiquan push hands and combative ability. For instance the eight methods of peng,
lu, ji, an, cai,
lie, zhou and kao as well as techniques common to all martial
systems such as kicking, punching, throwing, grasping etc.
Some years ago Zhu Tiancai came to our school in the UK and taught his Taiji Sanshou set (which he called the 42 Fajin at the time). Zhu
had developed this based upon a 32 fajin pattern that he had learned from Chen Zhaokui. While the Taiji Sanshou could be trained as a continuous series of movements like a form, it is really
meant to be trained as a series of single movement drills. Each of the exercises are used to hone the combat potentials hidden within the hand form. By taking out difficult movements, such as
Ying Men Kao (Enticing Bump) which utilises the chest as the striking area, or functional movement like Wai Bai Li Shua (Outward Swing and Inward Throw) where the upper and lower body
coordination is required to throw an opponent - and practising them repeatedly we can improve the accuracy, speed and timing of movements. In Taijiquan
Tuishou Wang Xian says, “single movement training shows each movement clearly and completely, forms can often conceal the real usage.”
Sealing the Throat training with Zhu Tiancai
As well as letting us train and refine complex movements, single movement training gives us a means to train potentially dangerous
movements in a controlled way. Chen Zhaokui stated that “some applications of the movement cannot be used in push hands, for example, elbow strikes… and also attacking vital points of an
opponent, or qinna”. To address this problem he pointed to the value of single posture training to develop certain martial skills that are inherently difficult to train safely with a partner.
These single movement drills can be taken from the handforms, particularly the Erlu. Drills from Zhu’s Taiji Sanshou that clearly fall into this category include movements such as Suo Hou Zhang
(Seal the Throat Palm), Liao Yin Quan (Lift the Crotch Fist) and Shuang Feng Guan Er (Double Crests Strike the Ears) and Quan Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow)…
Sealing the Throat Single Movement Drill - Zhu Tiancai
While training single movements we should not lose sight of the fundamental requirements: the harmonisation of internal and external
aspects; the co-ordination of the upper and lower body; clearly differentiating weight distribution; strict attention to timing. The goal is to utilise all of the body’s potential during
movements, which should be fast, focused and complete. With extended focused training movements become internalised and can be brought out instinctively without conscious thought. The aim is to
be able to direct power explosively with precision and ferocity - executing techniques crisply, quickly and smoothly and with precise timing – whilst attacking an opponent at their weakest point
and at the most vulnerable time.
Single movement training can also be used to train Chen Taijiquan’s stepping methods, developing the ability to move with agile footwork –
forward, backward, left and right and to be able to instantly attack or evade an opponent.
A saying often repeated in Taijiquan circles is “Practice ten thousand times and the skill will naturally emerge.” Failing to train single
movements is to omit an important part of the training process. Without it, an individual may have a nice looking form, but it will be a form that is empty of content, and put to the test in a
real physical confrontation will, in all likelihood, come up painfully short.
Notes on single movement training
Correct basics are essential before training for speed and power.
Begin slowly, training to execute movements correctly and paying careful attention to avoid losing energy and “collapsing” (diu)
during soft practice.
Speed up gradually, taking care not to lose the precision you have laid down in the primary stage and paying careful attention not to
exert energy too forcefully (ding) when you do explosive movements.
Pay attention to keeping your energy tracks undetected. Being able to do a technique forcefully is of little use if it is telegraphed
and easily read by an opponent.
Wang Xian training Dingzi Quan Guanyang (Nail-Shaped Fists targeting the temples)
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The Role of Weapons Training
(Thu, 03 May 2018)
Just out part two of a three part article published by Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine looking at Chen
Taijiquan’s integrated syllabus - this time looking at the place of weapons training. A quick note for anyone seeing the magazine – an article with the imaginative title “From Organ Builder to
Arms Dealer” is mistakenly attributed to me. Just to be crystal clear, it’s not mine!
The Role of Weapons Training in Chen Taijiquan
Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts Magazine
Chen Taijiquan has an extensive and complex corpus for developing skilled and effective martial practitioners. In this issue
we continue to examine the way in which the seemingly different aspects of the Chen Taijiquan syllabus are actually interrelated and mutually supporting. In the first part we looked at the
relationship between form training and push hands. Here we examine the role of weapons training within the wider Taijiquan curriculum and the way in which the various weapons can be used to
develop the physique and qualities of a Taijiquan player. Preserved within the weapons routines are flexible sinuous movements, dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping,
slicing or thrusting movements. Here we’ll consider how the demands of the different weapons, with their distinct characteristics and techniques, can have a transformative effect shaping new
levels of body awareness and dexterity.
A wide variety of weapons continue to be practiced in Chenjiagou, the birthplace of Taijiquan, a fact that comes as
something of a surprise to many people. These include the sword, broadsword, spear, halberd, long pole, eyebrow staff and double iron mace, among others. Some of these weapons are drawn from
China's ancient battlefield arts; others like the two section pole, evolving from agricultural tools, to eventually be incorporated within the Chen Family Taijiquan weapons syllabus. Knowing that
the likelihood of ever having to use the weapons for their original purpose is unlikely, leads many practitioners to the conclusion that they are irrelevant in the modern age. Even those that do
incorporate weapons into their practice often fail to see beyond the surface elements of performance and aesthetics, losing sight of the many potential benefits that can be gained from
During one of our early trips to
the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in China’s Henan province we were instructed that Taijiquan combat skill could only be achieved by gaining proficiency in four key areas: constitution or basic
physical conditioning; strength; technical skill and gongfu or cultivated skill. Taijiquan, in common with all traditional Chinese martial arts involves the balancing of internal and external aspects. Without an external basis any
internal development is of limited value. To put it bluntly, ""coordinated strength" means nothing if you don't have any strength to coordinate". Beyond their obvious functions, the different
weapons help to train many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique" - attributes such
as strength, dexterity, agile footwork and whole-body coordination. Weapons practice can help to achieve correct timing in all one's movements. Holding and manipulating the various weapons also
lead to improvements in the complexity of your hands and footwork skills. Viewed in the context of the system as a
whole, weapons training complements barehand training by magnifying certain requirements: the mind and intention must be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements
must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and responsive to enable rapid changes position.
Just as a fork and a spoon must be used in a precise way when one is eating, each weapon calls upon the practitioner to
clearly bring out different functional movements. For instance, the difference between Pi (splitting) andKan (cutting) was illustrated in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with the example of how "a woodcutter goes into the forest
to cut a tree down, then splits the logs for firewood. The two techniques are different and if he splits the logs as he cuts the tree he will not
have firewood". We’ll also consider some of the specific benefits that can be achieved by training the
more commonly used weapons, bearing in mind that there are inevitably areas of similarity between certain weapons:
Short Weapons Including the Sword and Broadsword
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is relatively light in weight, its use relies more upon skill, precision and speed than
upon strength. Its lightness means that the swordsman cannot rely on strength and attack head on. Rather he must develop a high degree of sensitivity and awareness of any openings an opponent may leave. Taiji sword emphasises variations of
speed to express extremely sudden and accurate movements such as splitting, pointing and piercing. The sword trains flexibility and the full extension of one’s body and practising the sword form allows an exponent to
develop the ability to project force in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create
an efficient Taijiquan body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated
body. The famous internal martial artist Sun Lutang was of the opinion that many people, despite training gongfu for many years, failed to achieve this. He believed that the task of loosening the shoulders and kua was of such importance
and that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else and that failing to address this meant that whatever they trained would be incorrect. The precise
nature of the sword movements also helps to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.
The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword is characterised by fast, explosive and direct movements. Where the sword is double-edged and
light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy. As such the broadsword lends itself to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in
nature - “like splitting a mountain.” Actions are more direct and obvious than the straight sword. A fact reflected in the Chinese martial arts saying: “Broadsword is like a fierce tiger, sword
is like a swimming dragon.” Training with the broadsword yields special benefits for the legs and waist. This weapon features complex stepping and wide expansive movements. Its demanding
challenges encourage practitioners to exert greater focus and effort in training leading to significant improvements in their overall skill level.
While the broadsword falls under the classification of short weapons, practitioners are called upon to use it like a long
weapon. Skilled exponents can cover a surprisingly long distance by utilising explosive leaping and jumping movements. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping
movements have much in common with modern plyometric training exercises used by many of today’s elite
sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power and for many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power and enhance performance by employing various
jumping, bounding and hopping exercises.
Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is
executed with long, low stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. However, when training for combat use, very low stances limits the fast and agile footwork
necessary in combat. Bearing this in mind, the Taiji player working on the application potentials of the broadsword routine would typically train with a higher posture to enhance mobility. So, to
achieve optimum martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners should train over a range of heights.
Long and Heavy Weapons
We’ll look at the benefits that can be gained from training with three of the better known long weapons – the long pole, the
halberd and the spear. Many modern day Taijiquan players are unaware of the importance placed on strength training in the past. In Chenjiagou on the training ground where Yang Luchan learned from Chen Changxin to become the first non clan member to learn Taijiquan,
there is a heavy rectangular stone weight that the then practitioners are believed to have trained with. The final test in China’s imperial military examinations established in the Ming dynasty
was lifting just this kind of weight. Though less popular than in the past, traditional strength training methods such as pole shaking and practising with heavy weapons continue to be used up until today. In any case, a certain
amount of pure strength must be developed to wield long and heavy weapons.
The long pole used in Chen Taijiquan is usually at least three metres long and made of white wax wood that possesses the
dual qualities of strength and flexibility. This flexibility allows the practitioner to transmit
force through it as they shake it. The nature of the long pole demands a significant degree of transformation as a practitioner's body is physically changed, becoming stronger and more flexible
so the pole's qualities can be expressed. Training with the long pole helps to increase whole body power, explosiveness and the amount of power that can be transmitted from the dantian out to the
extremities. The dantian is a point about three fingers beneath the navel and approximately an inch
beneath the surface that represents the bodies’ centre of energy and balance This weapon is usually trained either as a thirteen-movement routine or by performing repetitions of individual pole
shaking drills which help to develop and isolate different body mechanics. These pole drills focusing upon the actions of pi, beng, zha and dou or splitting, bursting, thrusting and shaking. As
well as form training and single movement exercises, a number of two-person “sticking” drills are also practised with the pole to enhance the ‘listening’ ability and combat skill of
practitioners. - and to apply the basic skills of Taijiquan, such as sticking, adhering, following and linking
The halberd (guandao), also known as the “Spring & Autumn Broadsword” or less prosaically as the “Big Knife” is an
imposing and heavy weapon characterised by strong and powerful movements. Generally, there are two kinds of Guandao. An extremely heavy weapon favoured for basic gongfu training, and a lighter
weapon adapted for fighting. Handling this weapon effectively requires a significant degree of upper body strength and a stable root. The weapon derived its name from the adventures of legendary
Chinese general Guan Yu during the chaotic “Three Kingdoms” (A.D.25–220) period of Chinese history. Uniquely the names of each of the movements of the halberd routine come in the form of a
seven-character poem which, when taken as a whole recount the story of General Guan. Consequently every time the form is practised, his exploits are re-enacted.
Guan Yu’s weapon is said to have weighed eighty-two jin (one jin is about five hundred grams). This was also the
favoured weapon of Taijiquan’s creator Chen Wangting. The dynamic nature of the guandao form, with its sudden changes in direction, sharp turns and explosive leaping movements makes it a
premier tool for total body-conditioning. The weapon requires practitioners to move and be responsive in every direction. Today’s practitioners use weapons ranging from a few kilograms to more than twenty kilograms. Its practice is based on thorough grounding in the core skills of
Taijiquan, as it demands a stable lower plane, good upper body strength, and excellent spatial awareness.
In Chinese martial arts circles it is said that "the spear is the king of all weapons". Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear
and White Ape Staff”, the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements
being done slowly. All Chinese martial arts including Taijiquan seek to develop skills in the four key areas of shou,yan, shenfa, bu or hands, eyes, body and footwork. Where the handform trains the qualities of rootedness, stability and careful accurate footwork,
the spear form demonstrates the dynamic expression of Chen Taijiquan’s agile footwork skills. Built around a series of intricate and rapid stepping movements known as the “martial flower” it is a
practical training tool helping to improve agility, or the ability to move quickly and effectively in different directions. The development of upper body strength, upper and lower body
co-ordination and overall flexibility is an added bonus.
A point to bear in mind with all of the weapons is the need to pay attention to training the core skills of each weapon
rather than just running through the forms. Chen Taijiquan's spear form marries the qualities of both spear and staff - the spear elements being straight and staff movements circular.
"Spear" techniques emphasise thrusting (zha), blocking (lan) and intercepting (na). Staff techniques are built around the ability to turn the weapon like two wheels on either side of the body and
not done as if you were paddling a canoe - a common mistake when training the spear.
The Role of Double Weapons
The Chen Taijiquan curriculum also includes a number of double weapons including the double sword, double sabre and double
iron mace. As well as possessing the qualities of their equivalent single weapon, training the double weapons can provide many additional training benefits. Firstly, they help to coordinate the
left and right sides of the body. At no time should one side be active while the other is dead, so both hands must have the function of supporting each other. Training with the double weapons
also helps to increase the coordination of the upper and lower body. For example, usually the sabre goes forward with the same leg (i.e. left sabre with left leg) though there are exceptions.
Another benefit of training with the double weapons is that it forces the subordinate hand to work, which ultimately helps to improve the hand form.
Incorporating these classical weapons into one’s practice enhances overall skills, preserves an unbroken tradition of
martial culture and greatly increases physical and cardiovascular fitness. Training with weapons
increases the coordination and integration of physical movements and adds an extra dimension to be aware of. Each of the weapons has its own unique characteristics and conditioning benefits,
and for those willing to put in the requisite time and effort, they remain highly practical training tools. In the third and final part of this series we’ll consider the role of internal
training methods within Chen Taijiquan.
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What’s the hurry, do it properly…
(Fri, 27 Apr 2018)
In a recent post I went
back through some old notes on Chen Taijiquan fajin. This time, in a similar way I’ve gone back through some of my battered old notebooks to pick out some words of advice on the rationale behind
Taijiquan’s use of slowness as a primary training tool. One of the first notes I’d highlighted was the advice that “slow movement is not the aim of Taijiquan, only a practice method”. With experience
this may seem obvious. In the early years, after coming from an external martial arts background, it was less clear. It is important to understand what Taijiquan is – a vast subject in itself. Chen
Taijiquan is a centuries-old Chinese martial art that uses a number of different methods and concepts to train a high level of body integration and martial ability. An often misunderstood area is the
highly practical benefits that can come - if one keeps confidence in the traditional slow training method.
In the first place slow
training enables a practitioner to develop a high degree of synchronisation of timing throughout the body parts involved in any particular movement. Not just involving one isolated muscle but the
cooperation of all. In the words of Chen Xiaowang, “Slow training allows you to slowly form the dantian as core. One part moves, all move. Connected from section to section, qi unbroken
throughout”…this movement system can then be adapted to all circumstances”.
“Taijiquan movement is based on a body philosophy whereby everything is natural and unforced… left/right upper/lower forward/backward - all complementing each other, with no contradiction or
friction”. Taijiquan’s movement system operates within a strict discipline that works towards the elimination of any unnecessary and potentially telegraphed movements. “To this end there are
exact prerequisites in terms of intention, body requirements and limb placement… Slow training allows you to check for yourself whether you are following these requirements”.
Slow training allows
us the possibility of NEVER IGNORING THOSE DETAILS. The unique nature of Taijiquan’s movement system is designed to get rid of all stiffness and rigidity in the body. With mindful training we can
lay down the correct energy route: foot – knee – hip – waist – shoulder – elbow – hand all controlled by the waist as manifested in silk reeling exercises. Learning to loosen the body
(fangsong) before using strength i.e. with the correct degree of relaxation you can use your strength effectively – the spiral force, shaking energy, rebounding force.
While learners often
become fixated on the end postures of Taijiquan, the system’s usage is more clearly demonstrated in the space between postures. Here it is especially important to take care that you are not
straying from the rules. A note I took from one of Wang Xian’s sessions reads: “You must practise slowly, especially through transition movements because during transition movements you must
manage changes and manage deviations – self correcting all the time.” He went on to advise that “You must know your boundary [position of maximum strength]… explore this through slow
Slow training allows us
each aspect carefully when practising until it becomes natural
feel the movement. After adjusting a student’s posture Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t say “have you got it”, he usually asks “you gan jue ma?” (“can you feel it?")
intention – to internalise – to calm the mind
I’ll leave the final word
on slow training to Chen Xiaoxing who, when asked why the movements had to be done so slowly, replied simply: “What’s the hurry? Do it properly”!
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Practice Makes Permanent...
(Mon, 12 Mar 2018)
CTGB's Crawford Currie -"Always practice good habits"!
Put in 10,000 hours of practice and you can become an expert – right? The “10,000-hour rule” popularised in
Malcolm Gladwell’s thought provoking book Outliers has entered into popular consciousness. It’s an appealing and easy to understand idea that by
putting in this amount of practice you can become a top performer in any area whether it be playing the piano, climbing or Taijiquan.
If it was only that simple! To begin with, all practice is not created equal and in reality it might be more
accurate to say that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent! While an often quoted Taijiquan adage advises practitioners to “practice 10,000 times and skill will naturally
emerge”, this is usually accompanied by the reminder to “always practice good habits”.
For practice to really bear fruit it must be deliberate and purposeful. As 18th Generation Chen
Taijiquan master Chen Zhaokui put it in his article Training for Sparring “… hard training means clever training… and the goal of training must be
clearly defined”. Brad Stulberg, co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success addressing
the quantity re quality issue: “Yes, great performers spend a lot of time practicing … but there are a lot of
people who spend a lot of time practicing who never reach world class or even national class levels… What separates the great performers from those that don’t meet that high bar is not
necessarily time spent practicing, but again, what they do as they’re practicing… In deliberate practice, you need to be fully tuned in to
learning the skill you are working on, and minimise distractions as much as possible (put away your phone). Because focusing intently takes so much energy you can really only sustain that level
of practice for 60 to 90 minutes at a time”.
It’s a given that the achievement of mastery is built upon consistent hard training over an extended time
frame. That said Taijiquan adepts have long understood the serious problems that arise when incorrect movement patterns or deviations in posture are allowed to develop. As the saying goes,
“Taijiquan is easy to learn but difficult to correct”. So better to practice less but correctly and intelligently than more and in the process develop any indirect or direct bad habits. The
reality is that all the practice in the world isn’t going to help if your body isn’t up to the task. Ultimately Taijiquan’s rules are what set practitioners free. The human movement system is
highly complex and by imposing specific constraints – in this case Taijiquan’s rules for each part of the body etc –optimal functional patterns of movement begin to emerge. It is these essential
and carefully laid down habits that make practice productive and performance effective.
Expertise then is developed based not just upon the time you devote, but on the way you practice. Back to
Chen Zhaokui, “Emphasis on slow moves only leads to slow strikes which an opponent can counter easily. But emphasis on fast moves alone makes it difficult to feel the path of your energy and
makes it easy to strike along a longer path than necessary. Being fast refers to the speed which is built up through familiarity of the energy path. It is a speed without loss of
Chen Zhaokui - "hard training means clever training"
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Notes on Fajin…
(Thu, 22 Feb 2018)
Chenjiagou street art...
I came across an old notebook filled over the course of a training camp in China’s Hebei province during one of our early trips to China in the
1990s . The camp lasted ten days with training focused on Xinjia Yilu and Tuishou. One evening a number of coaches gave presentations on
different aspects of Chen Taijiquan that included contest push hands, the health benefits of Taijiquan, TCM and Taijiquan and understanding Taiji philosophy and culture. One young Chinese coach
gave a short presentation of his research into Chen Taijiquan’s fajin method. Below are some notes I took during his talk.
“If you want powerful fajin the most important thing is the development of Chen Taijiquan’s “shaking elastic force””
There are three keys to developing fajin:
1. Practise with the aim of getting rid of stiff energy (fang song):
relaxation/looseness is the foundation of fajin
absolute softness leads to absolute power/strength and is the way to achieve complete
get completely relaxed – rid of any stiff energy released en route
all muscles and joints relaxed, stretched and sunk
limiting/resisting muscle that prevents energy release should be reduced
by shortening the resistance of muscles speed and power is greatly increased
2. Energy route is transmitted from feet – legs – waist - extremities
- this is a fundamental requirement
Intent and consciousness most important in fajin – use spirit and consciousness to manage qi and qi to manage body. This cannot be
over-emphasised – to get to a high level you must rely on intent
jin must start from both feet - if not from rooting
it’s the same as water with no source
if there is no resistance force (rebounding energy) from the floor then energy cannot go through and cannot form a complete system
waist and dang must be coordinated in a rapid shaking/thrusting movement leading to elastic force
aim is to concentrate all the body’s energy onto a single point
penetrating force - energy is focused on the contact point and when releasing energy maximum power should be concentrated at the end point before
if you have the energy and thrust without a focused contact/end point it is useless so the target point must be exact.
Shaking energy ceases at the point of contact – shaking the body without this focused endpoint is worthless nonsense!
energy starts from both feet
waist and hips shake and spiral
must have an exact target point and direct energy to it
Approach training in a step-by-step manner with the idea of working from the “least to
- prolonged practice leads to ease of movement
- movement that is under one’s own self control
The explosive fajin of GM Chen XiaoxingAdd caption
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Real Taijiquan Can’t be Simplified…
(Sun, 21 Jan 2018)
years ago we were training in Chenjiagou when one of our group posed the question "what is the most important element in determining whether a person would develop a meaningful level of skill"?
The answer - "discipline and the capacity to work hard for an extended time". But is the willingness to "eat bitterness" enough? An old Taijiquan saying suggests that "Taijiquan can only be
taught orally" - that is from person to person. The aforementioned "oral transmission" refers to a close, long-term interaction between teacher and student, and assumes that the teacher
understands Taijiquan theory and is capable of and willing to impart it to another person and that the student has the intelligence and ability to understand the teaching as well as the diligence
to put it into practice.
Chenjiagou street mural - Chen Zhaopi passing on his skills to the next generation
simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. If a person does not learn the correct method or take the correct path,
it is difficult for them to advance to a higher level of skill. On reaching a certain level, it is not a question of time whether someone can further improve. The key is whether he
has acquired the technical ability/skill to enable him to take his practice to a higher level.
society tends to emphasise "hustle", "efficiency" and "life hacks" - "five steps to a perfect relationship"... or "the one thing you must do to be in the top one percent" etc etc. Taijiquan
is a subtle and multi-dimensional discipline that cannot be simplified in this way. In a beautiful passage taken from Dr. J: The Autobiography, basketball great Julius Erving talks
about the dangers of confusing rhetoric with high level experience. Specifically he was referring to the difficulty of conveying the reality of playing on court through the second hand medium of
commentating from the sidelines:
remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. ...I worry that I am not
up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text.
You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise
moment that you realise you can reach the front of the rim… Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sudden that you have to act on it before it
is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that set off a
thousand instincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bull's second chance scoring and the
Rocket's bench production. I understand the need to do that...but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity into two
parallel with Taijiquan is clear. Where the spectator or lower level player gets caught up in the obvious manifestation of a particular action, skilled exponents act from a deeper place.
From a training foundation that considers every aspect of physical and mental harmonisation they reach a place where every "action sets off a thousand instincts".
Chenjiagou street mural - "Everyone in Chenjiagou knows Jin Gang Dao Dui"
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Chinese Folk Religion and Taijiquan...
(Tue, 19 Dec 2017)
Four famous generals from China's distant past, including Yuchi Gong and Qin Qiong now worshipped as "Door Gods"
A couple of weeks ago I broke the journey home from Chenjiagou, making a stop in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo
island for a week to visit relatives. One afternoon we took a drive to the small settlement of Tuaran to eat the noodles the town is famous for. A couple of streets from the restaurant was
Calligraphy reads- "Jing Gang Subdues the Demon
unexpected bonus - replete with a colourful ten storey pagoda, the splendidly named "Temple of
Dragon Mountain"! While the Malaysian-Chinese locals I travelled with described it as a Daoist Temple, puzzlingly a large sign painted on a wall next to it described it as Ling San Buddhist
Temple of Dragon Mountain
In the West it is often assumed that there are clearly demarcated lines between China's different
philosophies. However, in the day to day lives of the Chinese the lines are in reality more blurred. Walking through the temple the philosophies of
Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism co-exist harmoniously: statues of the Daoism's iconic Eight Immortals and various deified warriors from the China's distant past; a giant smiling golden Buddha;
figures from the Buddhist classic Journey to the West including Tripitaka and his companions the Monkey King, Sandy and Pigsy; and a statue of a benevolent looking Confucius sitting solidly in a
prime spot. These are accompanied by many images and figures from fearsome Jing Gang subduing demons to murals of various dragons and other colourful beasts, deities and young
I read an article recently by Chen Jinguo, a scholar of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, who
suggested that folk religion represents a core element of Chinese cultural self-awareness. While Professor Han Bingfang of the Institute for Research
into World Religions at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing went so far as to call Chinese folk religion the "core and soul of popular culture".
Chinese martial arts, including Taijiquan, being an important component of Chinese culture have inevitably
been influenced by these forces. Taijiquan is often simplistically referred to as a Daoist martial art. A cursory examination of its names shows
that it too draws from this common culture: the Chen Family Rules are typical Confucian standards of idealised behaviour adopted by many clan groups; the underlying philosophy of naturalness and
of using softness to overcome hardness are clearly drawn from Daoism; while the postures in the form such as Jing Dang Dao Dui (Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar) show the influence of
Buddhism. What all three philosophies have in common is the idea of an integrated universe balancing the three components of "heaven, earth and man".
and the Monkey King!
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Through realisation not speech...
(Mon, 27 Nov 2017)
In November Chenjiagou is quiet. I've been coming to the village for over twenty years now, training in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with GM Chen Xiaoxing since 2003. The changes in the
village year on year have been quite remarkable. That said, I was unprepared for the difference in the last twelve months: the centre of the village has become a green pedestrianised oasis; on
one end of the village a new "mountain" has appeared; even the small dark room two doors down from Chen Xiaoxing's living quarters within the school has had a facelift, with a coat of paint, a
mirrored wall and a pair of calligraphys hanging opposite to each other. That aside it remains the place where he teaches day in day out.
One thing that never changes is Chen Xiaoxing's demanding training regimen. Each morning the first session is scheduled for 8am and always begins with zhan zhuang (standing post). As Chen
Xiaoxing likes everyone to be standing when he comes in, people usually start five or ten minutes earlier. The floor is paved with stone tiles each about a metre square. As students come into the
room they fill up the squares on the floor with one person to each, lining up from the back of the room. By the time he enters everyone is already training. Student by student, Chen Xiaoxing then
systematically adjusts the posture of everyone in the room.
Many people describe zhan zhuang as a type of standing meditation. In contrast, I remember Chen Xiaoxing joking some years ago that the thing his students feared the most was the standing. His
corrections lead students into a deep and very demanding position - always sitting further back and deeper than their assumed position. Over the course of forty minutes or so the group do their
best to maintain the posture. Within a short time some people's legs are shaking uncontrollably, other stronger and more experienced practitioners on the surface seem to hold their shape, but
everyone imperceptively moves out of position. After ten or fifteen minutes Chen Xiaoxing returns and repeats the process again leading everyone to a place that tests their limits. The training
is painful and mentally challenging and the results come millimetre by millimetre. Chen Xiaoxing brings the standing to a close with a clap of his hands and there is a palpable sense of relief as
everyone moves about, some going out into the winter sun to bring some life back their aching legs.
Disciples and students of GM Chen Xioaxing
After five or ten minutes' respite the class continues, now lining up facing the mirrors. For the next three quarters of an hour the training focuses on silk reeling exercises designed to instil
Chen Taijiquan's spiralling movement. Chen Xiaoxing doesn't specify which drill students do and most stick to the single front reeling silk exercise or the double hand front to back exercise.
Again he moves from person to person carefully moving students through the movement route - always holding the hips down and back so there is no respite for the legs. Correcting each person
through touch, individually addressing their shortcomings: relaxing the chest, back or shoulders; ensuring the body doesn't lean in any direction; fixing any inconsistencies of coordination
between upper and lower body; anything that doesn't conform to the standard he requires.
Shaolin fighter Yi Long feels the burn
Altogether this first part of the class training zhan zhuang and chansigong lasts about an hour and a half. Throughout the process the students do not talk or ask questions. Their job is to
"listen" to and try to feel and understand the posture and movement method and to replicate it as closely as they can. On a blackboard fixed to one of the training room walls some previous
student has written the phrase "through realisation not speech". This method of transmission through direct experience is fundamental to a true understanding of Taijiquan. In China there is a
saying that to experience once is better than to hear a thousand times. Like the difference between someone describing a dish and actually tasting it for yourself. No matter how articulate the
person, words can give some idea, but they can never transmit the experience of actually eating the dish. The same holds true for Taijiquan's method and expression. A short film last year
featured Yi Long the Shaolin "Fighting Monk" during which he visited Chenjiagou. Delong is one of China's most famous and colourful fighters who last year lost a close decision in a bout with
Thailand's famous Muay Thai boxing champion Buakaw. When his posture was adjusted by Chen Xiaoxing you could see him gasping in an effort to maintain the position.
Drilling single movements...
During the next hour and a half of the class the group separate to train whichever aspect each person wants to, either in the training room or in the yard outside - some training the different
handforms, a few training push hands drills. This part of the class is more informal as Chen Xiaoxing wanders around often joking, sometimes offering pointers to the faults he inevitably finds.
Now people can ask if there is anything they are not clear on - bearing in mind his lack of patience for stupid questions. One less experienced and over-eager student would often spend this time
doing the forward and backward stepping push hands drill. Frantically bobbing up and down as he trained, ignoring the advanced students who laughed at his efforts and advised him there were no
shortcuts and that gongfu couldn't be laid down in this way, prompting Chen Xiaoxing to say "don't tell people that I have taught you to do that"! Another often quoted expression is that
"If you train quan without training gong, a lifetime of training will bear no fruit". They, for the most part, trained individual movements from the forms or carried on training the
fundamental exercises. Slowly and systematically embedding the required shape, energetic state and movement method until it becomes the default state of the body. Without following this path an
individual can fool themselves gaining false confidence by collecting a large number of applications. However, at the time their skills are needed, ultimately they will not work optimally when
tested under pressure. The session finishes at 11am when everyone breaks to eat and rest. At 3pm the process is repeated...
Western students often find this approach problematic, as they are educated through a school system that values and rewards students who constantly raise their hands and ask questions. The
paradox is that while seeming to ask fewer questions, most of the students in Chen Xiaoxing's class have a far greater awareness of Taijiquan's underlying theory and principles. While it may be
difficult to put into practice, this theory has never been more readily available to students than it is today. One of the most frustrating part of teaching is the constant need to reteach people
the choreography of forms that they simply don't train enough to become genuinely familiar. The preliminary stage of Taijiquan training requires students to drill the forms repetitively until the
form is completely familiar. The next stage then is to dismantle the form, training each movement to conform to the requirements. This can only be done in a slow, meticulous and mindful
Chen Xiaoxing's 65th Birthday
Afternoon training was suspended on the 23rd to celebrateChen Xiaoxing's 65th birthday. One of the things I love about him is his aversion to pomp and show. I remember celebrating his 60th
birthday not in some fancy hotel, but in the main training hall of the school. This wasn't possible this time, as the hall now houses a full size boxing ring and a permanent raised tuishou
platform. Instead we decamped to Chen Ziqiang's training centre. Like before students of the school waited on the tables and the food was cooked on the premises by instructor Wang Yan's father
who is a chef and restaurant owner. The participants were an intimate group of disciples and close friends with not an official to be seen. Some of these guys have trained with Chen
Xiaoxing since the 1980s and have their own schools being renowned teachers in their own right. But when they come back to Chenjiagou they still line up in the small dark room to train the
Pre-party photo: L-R: David Gaffney, Chen Xiaoxing, Davidine Sim
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Why train weapons?
(Sat, 21 Oct 2017)
Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan with his favoured weapon
Weapons training has always played an important part in the Chen training curriculum. At the time of its creation, Chen style Taijiquan was practiced essentially to develop the martial and
military skills of the villagers of Chenjiagou. Without a doubt the training would have greatly enhanced the health of the Taiji boxers but this did not provide the main reason for practicing the
skill. In Chen Wangting’s day guns had yet to make an appearance; traditional weapons were still being carried onto the battlefield and used in actual combat.
Today, the weapon routines of the assorted Chinese martial arts are considered by most people only from the perspective of demonstrating or exercising in the park. Viewing the Chen weapon forms
in this way shows a superficial appreciation of their fundamental nature. Preserved within each of the Chen weapons routine is a complex martial training manual. As well as the flexible sinuous
movements, the forms include numerous dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping, slicing or thrusting movements.
Viewed in the light of the whole system, weapons training add to the barehand training of the Chen Taijiquan exponent by magnifying certain requirements. For instance, the mind and intention must
be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and
responsive to permit rapid changes in the actual fighting sequence. Within the training curriculum of Chen style Taijiquan numerous weapons are still practiced today, including sword (jian),
broadsword (dao), spear (qiang), halberd (guandao), pole, double-sword, double-broadsword and double iron mace.
The sword is one of the most ancient weapons in Chinese martial arts history. Archaeologists have uncovered swords from as far back as the Bronze Age. When the Terracotta Army was unearthed in
the early Chinese capital Xian, a find dating back to the Qin dynasty more than two thousand years ago, the officers and generals were found carrying swords.
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is generally light in weight, with a flexible blade. For the Chen Taiji swordsman, success on the battlefield depended more upon skill, precision and speed. Chen
Taijiquan contains one single straight sword form consisting of forty-nine postures. The forty-nine postures can be sub-divided into thirteen basic techniques: thrusting downwards (zha); level or
upward thrust (ci); pointing by flicking the wrist (dian); chopping (pi); slicing levelly or obliquely upwards (mo); sweeping (sao); neutralizing in a circular path (hua); circular deflection
with point uppermost (liao); hanging (gua); pushing up (tuo); pushing (tui); intercepting (jie); and raising opponent’s weapon overhead (jia)”.
The sword’s flexibility allows the proficient swordsman to inflict injury from a great range of angles utilizing many diverse techniques. Its great versatility has led to the saying that there is
“no gap the sword cannot enter, and no gap that another can enter”.
Chen Xiaoxing training sword
The different weapons help to train the many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique.” Practicing the Chen sword form allows an exponent to develop the ability to project
energy in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create an efficient Taiji body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders, as well as
helping to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.
Chen Family Temple mural - Broadsword
Another of Chen Taijiquan’s short weapons is the Broadsword. Easily distinguishable from the sword, which is double-edged and light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy. The resultant
strength of the broadsword led to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in nature. In appearance, using the broadsword is said to be “like splitting a mountain.” In character,
the Broadsword is traditionally compared to a ferocious tiger, with each movement being more direct and easily understandable than the straight sword. This is reflected in the Chinese martial
arts saying “Dao like a fierce tiger, jian like a swimming dragon.”
The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword form is short in length and dynamic in nature. Although classified as one of the system’s short weapons, the broadsword can cover a surprisingly long distance by
utilizing explosive leaping and jumping movements. Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is executed with long, low
stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping movements much in common with modern plyometric
training exercises used by many of today’s elite sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power. For many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power in
order to enhance performance. Throughout the last century and no doubt long before, jumping, bounding and hopping exercises have been used in various ways to enhance athletic performance. In
recent years this distinct method of training for power or explosiveness has been termed plyometrics (Flach, 2005: 14). In Chenjiagou, Taijiquan exponents have long understood this method of
training to enhance the explosive reaction of the individual.
When training for combat use, however, using very low stances, prevents the dexterity and fleetness of footwork required in a real conflict. The Taiji boxer focusing on training the applications
within the broadsword routine would usually practice in a higher posture to enhance mobility. Consequently, to achieve both martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners in Chenjiagou have
traditionally trained over a range of heights.
Chen Taijiquan Spear
As well as its short weapons, Chen Taijiquan also has a number of weapons for long range combat, including the halberd, long pole and the “King of Weapons” – the spear. An often-cited phrase
-“one hundred days to practice broadsword, one thousand days to practice spear” – reflects the intricacy and level of difficulty contained within the form.
Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear and White Ape Staff” (Li Hua Qiang Jia Bai Yuan Kun), the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff.
The routine dates back to Chen Wangting, making it one of the earliest Taiji forms. In his comprehensive review of Taijiquan, The Origin, Evolution and Development of Shadow Boxing, Gu Liuxin
cites the evidence gathered by historian Tang Hao, who came to the conclusion that the texts of the famous Ming general Qi Jiguang had a profound influence on Chen Wangting’s creation of
Taijiquan. Qi’s military training text, in turn, documented the spear techniques of the Yang Family 24-Spear Form. The Yang family in question refers to a renowned female warrior of the Song
dynasty, who used the form to avenge the slaying of her male relatives, so should not be confused with the Yang Taijiquan family.
The earliest version of the Chen Taiji spear form followed the sequence of the Yang 24-movement
Ming General Qi Jiguang
form in both posture and name. Its uniqueness came as a result of the application of Taiji movement principles to the existing method. In the ensuing years, the Chen spear form has increased from
24 to 72 movements with the addition of a variety of staff movements.
Watching a skilled exponent performing the, its martial roots are immediately apparent. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements being done slowly. Today it is highly
unlikely that anyone would need to use the spear for its original combat purpose, yet the Chen family spear form remains a highly practical training tool. Spear practice enhances barehand skills
by improving balance through the use of intricate and rapid stepping movements as well as developing upper body strength and overall flexibility.
Variously known as the “Spring and Autumn Broadsword,” the “Green Dragon Crescent Moon Broadsword” or simply the “Big Knife,” the halberd is one of the oldest weapons forms in the system.
Characterized by strong and powerful movements, the halberd is a large and heavy weapon requiring a high degree of upper body strength and a stable root if it is to be manipulated freely. The
Chen Taijiquan halberd trains the practitioner to move and be responsive in every direction. The halberd provides today’s practitioners with a tangible link to the earliest days of Chen
Taijiquan. The favored weapon of Chen Wangting, it is recorded in the Genealogy of the Chen Family that:
Guandao training - Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
Wangting, alias Zhouting, was a knight at the end of the Ming dynasty and a scholar in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. He was known in Shandong Province as a master of martial arts, once
defeating more than a thousand bandits. He was the originator of the barehanded and armed combat boxing of the Chen school. He was a born warrior, as can be proved by the
broadsword he used in combat.
While the individual names of the weapon or hand forms describe the movements, the halberd form is unique. Each of the thirty movements of this form is given a seven-character song or poem. When
taken in their entirety, they recount the story of General Guan, a famous warrior from the turbulent Three Kingdoms Period (A.D.25–220) of Chinese history. Consequently every time the form is
practiced, his exploits are re-enacted.
Contemporary practitioners should not overlook the importance of the weapons routines as they offer a tangible link to past generations. The forms are at once practical and aesthetic.
Artistically pleasing to watch, the weapons routines are physically complex and demanding to complete. Many of the weapon forms have changed little since the time of Chen Wangting. Consequently
they provide a window to the origins of Taijiquan and represent an important legacy to today’s Taijiquan practitioner.
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UFC legend Anderson Silva meets Chen Taijiquan...
(Wed, 27 Sep 2017)
Chen Taijiquan Chen Xiangin meets MMA's Anderson Silva
I saw this interaction between UFC legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva and Chen Xianglin one of the branch instructors of the
Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a member of its fighting team and thought some of you might enjoy it.
Mixed martial arts website bloodyelbow.com reported recently that
"the UFC is headed to Shanghai in November with Anderson Silva expected to headline in a bout with Kelvin Gastelum. The UFC is finally headed to mainland China five years after their first
event in Macau, back in 2012".
Brazilian mixed martial artist Anderson "the spider" Silva holds the longest title streak in UFC history, which ended in 2013 after
2,457 days, with 16 consecutive wins and 10 title defences of the UFC middleweight crown. He was described by UFC president Dana White and a number of mixed-martial-arts publications as the
greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Silva and Gastelum are currently in China promoting their upcoming bout. One
of the most dominant strikers the sport has ever seen Silva's main martial art is Muay Thai, but he is a black belt in Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo.
After the press conference yesterday (25th Sept) for the upcoming fight the "Spider" met with Chen Xiangln for dinner and for a
friendly exchange of skills. Chen Xianglin is one of the guys we've watched over the years emerging from the ranks of students and developing into an accomplished martial artist.
In the short clip of their meeting Silva's jaw visibly dropped at the explosiveness of Chen's short range fajin. What's the
chance he'll add Chen Taijiquan to his repertoire?
Legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva experiencing Chen Taijiquan
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On Taijiquan, weightlifting and a shared world view...
(Mon, 25 Sep 2017)
Unveiling Chenjiagou's new statue of Chen Wangting
Chenjiagou is buzzing at the moment with the unveiling of a new and bigger statue of Chen Wangting. At the same time, coming across the following quote by Wang Xian made me chuckle: “What’s the
biggest secret in Taijiquan – train, train, train and train again. If you just look and don’t practice even Chen Wangting couldn’t teach you”! A simple and unmistakable message that nobody could
fail to understand! Everybody gets the idea that superior skills require bitter training. Ultimately every person makes a decision how hard they are going to work and, by definition, the elite
level is built on a commitment that the masses cannot commit to. As bodybuilding legend and multiple times Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman puts it: “Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t
nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights”!
Joking aside, a serious obstacle faces many western students of Taijiquan that cause many students to get a disproportionately small return in real Taijiquan terms for their hard efforts. The various
internal martial arts systems share many training methods and theories which practitioners, while sweating and knocking out the reps, often pay lip service to. Requirements such as:
Chen Xiaoxing - "without understanding China's
traditional culture you cannot go past a basic level"
Head held as if being suspended by a string
Eyes kept level
Tongue against the upper palate
Shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken
Chest relaxed and contained
Qi to dantian
These are the core requirements. The problem is that the benefits of training these aspects are not at all obvious. Many students are able to quote these rules, but lose
confidence in prioritising their attainment in their daily training. The average Chinese student has less internal conflict when their teacher asks them to follow these requirements. Not that
there are no lazy or impatient Chinese students, or that all Chinese students pay strict attention to these details and don't get distracted by the more dynamic side of Taijiquan. But these ideas
are shared throughout Chinese culture. Many of the same requirements underpinning Taijiquan are also central to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine,painting and calligraphy etc.
Even the ultra stylised medium of Beijing opera requires performers to keep their kua level, to sink qi to the dantian, lift the crown of their head etc. In an interview with Chen Xiaoxing he
went as far as describing the lack of understanding of traditional Chinese culture as one of the most significant barriers for non-Chinese students. Without this, he believed a person could never
get beyond the basic level of imitating the outside shape.
During the London Olympics I watched the weightlifting event. As one of the Chinese contestants prepared to make his final lift his coach quietly said "chen qi" or "sink your qi". At this
pivotal moment he for sure wasn't looking to make some kind of obscure philosophical point. The advice carried a clear and understandable message to his lifter. The lack of understanding this
shared world view is a barrier that western Taijiquan students must overcome if they are to be successful in their practice.
Chinese weightlifters understand what is meant by "sinking the qi"
Doing it "correctly" v "quickly"...
(Fri, 15 Sep 2017)
It's always a pleasure to return to Poland. As usual Chen Ziqiang's week long series of workshops was ably
hosted by Marek Balinski's Chen Taijiquan Academie in the suburbs of Warsaw. A recurring pointer over the different sessions was the need to be patient and to do the right thing. Haste,
impatience and the urge to do it quickly- be it the handforms, weapons or push hands - only lead to poor realisation. Ultimately this kind of short-cut thinking kills any chance of developing
authentic skill. Conversely, careful repetitive practice allows one to systematically train out any mistakes of structure or timing and coordination. To quote Chen Ziqiang, "Be patient. Do it
right. If you do the right things, the right things happen".
We reviewed the spear form over the course of two days going deeper into the essential points of the weapon. Despite it being an experienced group that knew the choreography well, he
spent half of the first day working on three core basic drills which combined, trained the "martial flower" pattern. The martial flower synchronises fast and agile footwork with movements
of the spear, "as if there were an axle turning two wheels closely on either side of the body". As mentioned in a previous post, people often incorrectly do this movement by turning the
spear in front of their body as if paddling a canoe.
Students often get impatient during this kind of basic practice, but that is what gets results. Commenting on one over-zealous student moving furiously up and down the room: "Look at him spinning
the spear around as if he knows what he's doing". Superficially the hand movements were OK, but the footwork was completely uncoordinated,
stepping back as if both feet were fixed on tramlines. Chen Ziqiang recalled how he was instructed to train the
martial flower for two years before being allowed to begin learning the spear form. And to train the basics of the sabre for five years before learning the form. Training in this way ensured that
the essential characteristics became default settings over which it was easy to learn the form correctly. Obviously this time scale might not be practical or possible for a middle-aged
practitioner who enjoys Taijiquan as a hobby and trains a couple times a week. However, it does point to the importance of careful mindful practice and the fact that doing it correctly is far
more important than doing it quickly.
On a similar theme, during push hands training emphasis was placed on fixing the movement track until it is seamless. For instance, repeatedly training a single qinna with the idea of
adding speed in the future when it can be applied instinctively without excessive or telegraphed movement. Going through the dingbu drill, carefully paying attention to the moments when you
or your opponent were vulnerable to attack. Being mindful of changes in weight and the points where the opponent became double weighted and unable to take their foot off the ground.
In the beginning learners are naturally anxious to get everything, but at some point there's a need to realise that the best results only come if training is approached in a particular way.
Above simply training hard (which is a given), what's needed is the mental capacity to take a step back and undoing mistakes. Adopting a state of relaxed mindfulness, in a sense, not
trying too hard and not fixating on any one particular aspect. Many people may misinterpret this as advocating some kind of easygoing less than optimal approach. This is a serious
misunderstanding. Relaxed in this sense doesn't mean just sloppily doing what you want, but building slowly from fundamentals and adding to them layer by layer - no matter how long it
Warasw spear group
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Taijiquan's "Placing Hands"
(Wed, 06 Sep 2017)
Kenji: Manga and Chen Taijiquan come together
Many people approach Chen Taijiquan’s “push hands” without really appreciating its subtleties and its place within the training curriculum.
Interestingly even the term “tuishou” or “push hands” is a relatively recent term. Go back through the literature left by earlier generations and the term more commonly used was “geshou”. The
literal translation of this is “putting hands”, but for readability in English we can say “placing hands”. Think of the action of putting a glass of water onto a table. Without paying attention
and putting it down carefully we’ll either spill the water on the way to reaching the table. Or, worse we’ll drop the glass onto the floor if we release it too early. From this simple example we
can see that the distance, angle etc must be exact.
The following text is adapted from Paul Brennan’s translation of Chen Ziming’s 1930s Taijiquan treatise. “…you will begin to sense that the subtleties of the placing hands exercise come entirely from the ordinary practice of the Taijiquan form. All of the
principles within the form manifest from a balanced energy. Placing hands is the application of that balanced energy.
Diligently practice the form. Once you are accomplished at it, you will naturally be able to move on to placing hands… In the beginning, work hard
and unceasingly. But you must not learn placing hands first as it will undermine everything you are working towards, and for your whole life you will never be able to reach the heart of the art.
If you do not first learn the form, and you instead want to start with placing hands exercise, you will be like an infant who learns to walk before learning to stand – ie always falling over. To
abandon the beginning in search of the end is to start with the goal and neglect the work that will get you to it. If you do not know what comes before and follows after, how can you be on the
right path? It is the form that is to be practiced first. People who first learn placing hands are all impatient for quick results, and they do not start with the form because they are all afraid
of the hard work it entails and want only comfort. Unable to face up to the proper sequence of training, they just want to jump ahead. It is
like wanting to draw lines and circles without the use of compass and square. In this way, they all produce something that a true craftsman would deem worthless”.
Chen Ziming "placing hands"
Even with the basis of good form skills students must not become transfixed with the idea of pushing their opponent or forcing their techniques on
and “winning” the encounter. This is a serious misunderstanding of the exercise. While it may seem to have been applied instantaneously, an accomplished practitioner applying a technique goes
through the following four stages.
1. ting jin (listen to an
2. dong jin (understand…energy)
3. hua jin (neutralise…energy)
4. fa jin (release your own energy)
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Integrating Body and Mind…
(Tue, 29 Aug 2017)
Six harmonies to unify body and mind
The famous Chinese military strategist Sunzi stated that: “Victory comes from deep
thinking, detailed preparation and long calculation”. Chen Taijiquan’s systematic training methodology takes into account every aspect of an individual. Its unique training method was devised to
unify body and mind and sayings such as “concentrate on one thing lose everything” reflect an implicit understanding that no single facet can be understood except in relation to the whole.
Recognising this practitioners work towards harmonising the opposing forces or aspects within the body through the gradual realisation of Taijiquan’s “six harmonies” – divided into three external
and three internal harmonies.
Understanding and applying the six harmonies is not easy, especially the three internal
harmonies and learners shouldn’t expect to achieve this overnight. To take them in turn, the external harmonies refer to aspects of structure and
alignment and the coordination of the external aspects of the body. The three external harmonies represent the connections between:
Hands – Feet
Elbows – Knees
Shoulders - Kua
The realisation of the external harmonies is sometimes referred to as the skill of
“everything arriving at the same time”.
Working Towards Integration
Broadly speaking we can say that anything that leads us towards integrating the body and
mind leads us towards realising the six harmonies. Over the generations different ways have been used to explain this process. For example, Chen Taijiquan makes use of “three sectional movement” explained by Chen Xin as
follows: “Jin is divided into three sections, every section is interconnected [jin] moving from section to section”. The following passage taken from the Chen family classics explains how to use
this theory to synchronise the whole body:
“In truth it can serve the purpose by discussing them [the
different parts of the body] by three parts: the upper, the middle and the lower, or root, middle and tip. For the entire body, head is the upper part, chest is the middle part and legs are the
lower part. For the face, forehead is the upper, nose is the middle and mouth is the lower. For the torso, chest is the upper, stomach is the middle and dantian is the lower. For the legs, kua is
the root, knee is the middle and foot is the tip. For the upper limb, arm is the root, elbow is the middle and hand is the tip. For the hand, wrist is the root, palm is the middle and finger is
the tip, from which the case of the feet can be deduced. So there are three parts from neck to feet. It is important to focus on the three parts in their cooperation. If the upper is not clear,
there will be no source, if the middle is not clear, the internal body will be empty, and if the lower is not clear, instability will occur. From this it is obvious that the three parts of the
body cannot be overlooked”.
The bow has the function of stretched power between two opposing forces.
Others use the idea of “Five Bows” to explain Taijiquan’s internal power mechanics –
simply put, bows have the function of stretched power between two opposing forces. The body consists of five primary bows - the torso, the arms and
legs which, when combined, form the basis of focused whole body jin. They allow the collective force of the entire body to be emitted through one
point, hence the saying, “five bows combine into one”.
In practice it is important to become more aware of movements opposing and complementing
each other - recognising the fact that if there is a motion upward, there will be a motion downward. If there is a motion forward, there will be a motion backward. If there is a motion leftward, there will be a motion rightward. This is reflected in advice passed down such as: “The heels sink down while the achilles tendon
lifts up. The kua loosen while the lower spine lifts up. The shoulders relax while the neck lifts up”. Or the “three liftings” of the internal martial arts which instructs practitioners to use
intention to lift the baihui, tongue and huiyin while everything else sinks down.
To summarise harmonisation:
- No action in isolation
- When one part moves another part harmonises (upper/lower, left/right, hand/foot/ qi/action
While Taijiquan is considered to be an “internal” martial art, there is a close
relationship between the external and internal aspects. So for instance, the process of quieting the mind leads to the calming of the emotions and inevitably to the relaxation of the body. In the
early stages of training practitioners use the external shape to lead the internal, eventually using internal energy to drive the external shape.
Taijiquan’s three internal harmonies are usually described as the harmonisation of one’s
xin (heart/mind), yi (intention), qi (intrinsic energy) and li (body strength). These are unified through the connections of:
Xin – Yi
Yi – Qi
Qi – Li
Xin – Yi
Qi – Li
Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)
Zhu Tiancai summarised the body’s internal connections as a chain reaction:
1. Xin is activated in instigating an action.
2. Yi dictates the direction and power of the action.
3. Yi sets in motion qi energy (that starts to move under the direction of yi).
4. This in turn produces li or physical power.
Singapore 2002 pushing hands with Zhu Tiancai: "Intention dictates the power of an action"
Heart and Intention
The xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions, from tranquillity,
calmness and serenity to anger, grief, disappointment and frustration etc. The yi, on the other hand, refers to the logical decision-making mind. To cultivate mental unity both the emotional mind
as well as the logical mind must be present. Fully focused energy can only be achieved with a decisiveness of purpose.
Nowhere is this more important than in the arena of combat where conflicting thoughts
and feelings can easily lead to an unsuccessful outcome. Here xin is needed to summon up courage and fighting spirit and yi to make clear judgements and logical decisions. To paraphrase
14th generation master Chen Changxin, when facing an opponent “stand like a living dragon and then crush him like plucking a weed”.
Chen Changxin statue in Chenjiagou
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Taijiquan's "Big Four" Joints...
(Mon, 07 Aug 2017)
An article published on Taiji Yiren, a Chinese site created to promote Taiji culture,
reported the response by Chen Zhaoxu to the question – “How do you train this martial art”? Chen Zhaoxu (the eldest son of Chen Fake and father of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing) answered, “You
have to fangsong (loosen) the “four big pieces” in the body”. That is the two shoulders and the two kua.
His younger brother Chen Zhaokui expanded on this, advising practitioners of the need to
pay attention to relaxing the chest as only if your chest relaxes can your shoulders relax. He gave the example of push hands: “During push hands, the first thing is to control someone’s
shoulders. If your shoulders are not flexible, you are actually locking yourself”. He went on to suggest that once you’ve solved the problem of the shoulders - that is they are flexible and can
execute full rotation – even if someone locks you from behind,
Chen Zhaokui - "First thing is to control an opponent's shoulders"
you can reverse the attack and escape. Chen Zhaokui spoke of the relationship between
the shoulders and the kua: “Relaxing the chest and shoulders facilitates the folding movement of the torso and that has a direct relation to the kua being
Sun Lutang - "First solve the problem of the shoulders and kua"
Sun Lutang, the renowned internal martial artist and creator of Sun Style Taijiquan
believed that, such was the importance of these four joints that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else: “The key is in the shoulders and kua. In
the beginning don’t think about anything else – just solve the problem of these two parts”. He advised learners to constantly think about how to relax and sink (ie don’t lift) the shoulders. This
focus should be carried over to encompass one’s daily activities – “In your everyday life think about sinking your shoulders and dropping your elbows. [In time] you’ll see an obvious change”. Sun
Lutang was of the opinion that a lot of people who have trained gongfu for many years have not succeeded in opening their kua. Concluding that
this was a serious failing that he believed meant that no matter how much effort they put in, without addressing this shortcoming, whatever they you train will be incorrect”.
Sun cautioned practitioners to be patient, advising them to only move on to other aspects
of training when this basic requirement was achieved. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated body and from that point start to open up and stretch
the rest of the joints: “After your shoulders and kua open other things are not so difficult. If you are diligent and persevere your body will start to change shape – you might even get
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Taijiquan's "Potential Strength"
(Fri, 28 Jul 2017)
Taijiquan's potential by Mary Johnston
Taijiquan teachers often use the expression - “be strong in eight directions”. But what does this actually mean in practice? Fundamental to understanding how the Chinese understand dynamic processes is coming to terms with the character
shiwhich can be loosely translated as the “configuration of energy”, or we could say latent energy. In texts from as far back as the Warring States and
Qin period the term shi can often be found paired with the character xing, “external shape”. For example, a
boulder has a shape. If it is balanced at the edge of a cliff it is said to have shi. The term is used widely in the Chinese tradition to describe the
manifestation of energy from potential. China’s most revered military strategist Sunzi described the potential of a rock perched on the edge of a cliff and the devastating power that could be
released from this quiet and harmless state. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of him not
attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Similarly, Taijiquan appears quiet on the surface, but a highly trained practitioner seeks to be in a place of
balance where they can instantly react to a force coming from any direction.
Sunzi would have seen the potential of this
rock perched high above the Grand Canyon
John Hay (1994) in his introduction to Boundaries
in China describing shi wrote: “Its boundaries are therefore in time as well as space; they are never geometrically precise. Instead of exterior
planes, they have a changeable envelope of textured energy”. Little wonder then that western Taijiquan players often misunderstand their Chinese teachers. During one training camp in Chenjiagou a
student asked whether a particular movement was pengor lu. The answer he received was, “It could be
peng and it could be lu”. That is, it had the potential to be either depending upon the intention at that
moment. The student walked away confused and disappointed that they had not received a “straight answer”.
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On push hands competitions...
(Fri, 07 Jul 2017)
A common phenomenon at competitions is the sight of those on the sidelines shaking their heads and criticising
the competitors. These armchair experts quote Taijiquan ideals such as “using four ounces to uproot a thousand pounds” and “using softness to overcome
hardness“, to pour scorn on the contestants, none of whom measure up to their standards of what Taijiquan should be. The criticism is often
unfair. Firstly, most of the critics have never put themselves into the competitive arena and experienced for themselves the performance-sapping effects
of nerves and pressure.
Secondly, the sayings represent a perfect model that all Taijiquan exponents aspire to. For example, “giving up yourself to follow others” requires an individual to remain circular within their postural framework, sticking and following an opponent
without losing contact. At the same time maintaining agility and sensitivity throughout with the ability to assess the opponent’s attacks and
determine the distance, direction, speed and power of any threat. All the while maintaining the ability to assess and respond to minute
changes. Following the opponent’s posture and borrowing his strength rather than resisting reaching a stage of being able to react according to the
situation. To reach a stage where you can do this is no easy task, so perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticise the average competitor for not living
up to these ultimate standards. After all, no one would expect a club runner to keep up with Usain Bolt, so one should not be too surprised when an
average competitor does not live up to the standard of the great masters.
important to make the distinction between modern push hands competitions and the hitting or connecting hands of the past. Before techniques such as
throwing, seizing and striking were used, not dissimilar from today’s sanda and sanshou. Much of what Taijiquan uses for self defence is prohibited
in tournament style competition, and whenever a fighter’s arsenal of techniques are restricted, inevitably what they can do is weakened and diluted.
For this reason competitions are viewed as sport rather than real combat.
Competitions are best viewed as a testing ground to see what does and does not work for an individual and then, with
this feedback, to adjust their training accordingly. If the competitors have trained hard and developed some degree of rooting, balance and
neutralising skill then they should not be too worried about being taken or thrown by an opponent. Without ever being tested many practitioners
continue to walk around with a false sense of their true level of martial skill. That said, you shouldn’t put too much importance on sporting competition. At the end of the day push hands
competitions take place in an arena with rules and referees and is not the same as real combat, and techniques that win a point may be less effective in the unforgiving real world.
1997 British Open Chinese Martial Arts Championships: -80Kgs Final
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The spiritual dimension…
(Tue, 13 Jun 2017)
Laozi image in the Chen Family Temple
A prospective student phoned me recently informing me that he had studied martial arts
for some years and was now ready to do "something spiritual"! It brought to mind a case in the news a little while ago about a yoga teacher who was told by the church where she taught that she
would have to find a different room. Yoga teacher Naomi Hayama was outraged at the suggestion that she was doing a "spiritual" discipline: "They are trying to say it is a spiritual practise but my classes are not… I respect people who are
religious but I am not. That's what attracted me to yoga”. I was tickled by the
response of a friend of mine (who happens to be an Indian guy and a committed yoga practitioner) on Facebook who dryly commented that, "900 million Hindus might disagree".
In one of the featured articles in the book Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts and Practical Applications, Michael Maliszewski Ph.D. revisited a ten year research project he had previously completed dealing with meditative practices and indigenous healing traditions associated with many Asian martial arts. Some twenty years since
his work was published he believed, “there had been a decline in the depth that has characterised the more traditional systems. The spiritual or meditative focus is more “generic” in the sense
that any loose association with the ethereal is deemed spiritual”. Maliszewski concluded that, “in general martial arts study today, practitioners do not have the dedication to endure the long
hours of training required to reach a level of authentic mastery in a tradition”.
During one of our training trips to Chenjiagou someone asked about the “spiritual
dimension” of Taijiquan. They were told that there are three reasons for training Taijiquan: first for training an individual’s strength, constitution and general health; second, on the basis of
good physicality training for combat; finally, on the basis of the previous two aspects they could begin to talk about spiritual development.
Over a lifetime’s training the committed Taijiquan practitioner embarks on a process of
nurturing and cultivating or “xiu yang”. In The Taoist Body Kristofer Schipper describes xiu
yang as the: “means to arrange, to smooth down any roughness or
irregularities by repeating an action many times in harmony with the cosmic order, until perfection is achieved. The perfect and complete body is
thereby nurtured, its energies strengthened; it thus becomes totally integrated into the natural and cosmic environment. From there, the way is led – by repeated, cyclical movements – to
spontaneity, which is the essence of the Tao”.
Morning practice in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School - ongoing daily effort, the real path...
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